The Selfish Gene Goes to War
The Father of Sociobiology Changes His Mind
In 1975, Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology. After Wilson came Richard Dawkins, who published a pro-sociobiology book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976. In both books, human habits, motives, and even love come down to the genes. The political consequence of this reductionism? If all that matters are the genes, then what's wrong with one person exploiting another?
Now, let's look at this moment from a Marxist perspective. In the first half of the '70s, we see in the West a decline of social democratic policies (robust welfare system, strong rights for labor) and Keynesian (demand- rather than supply-side) economics; in the second half, we see the spectacular rise of neoliberal governance (deregulation of financial institutions, the weakening of labor power) and Friedmanian (supply- rather than demand-side) economics. Sociobiology and The Selfish Gene, which appear in the middle of this shift, basically place the individual at the center of human social existence. And what is an individual about? Transmitting his or her genes into the future by any means necessary. You can see how this kind of biological thinking fit well with the economic thinking articulated by Milton Friedman and implemented by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the following decade.
The evidence that Wilson and Dawkins were saying the right thing at the right time is found in precisely how they solved a problem that bothered even the father of evolutionary biology, Darwin: Why, if we are such selfish individuals, does altruism exist in the animal world? Furthermore, how could a selfish animal cooperate with other selfish animals to form a stable society? Their answer? A 1963 paper by a biologist named William Hamilton. His theory of kin selection allowed sociobiology to maintain the centrality of the selfish individual within a society cemented by altruism. Hamilton's argument: An animal cooperated with other animals only when it and the other animals shared lots of the same genes. Kin selection soon became the only game in town.
Nearly 40 years later, Wilson has published a book, The Social Conquest of Earth, that rejects kin selection (which means evolution only acts at the level of the individual) as the cornerstone of sociobiology. He has gone to the other side, group selection (evolution only acts on the group). Wilson essentially argues that the disposition (or genes) for altruism must be there first for the steps toward eusociality (true sociality—ants, termites, humans, and so on) to occur. Kin selection has nothing to do with this. Altruistic animals will work with other altruistic animals, and that's that.
But here is my problem with Wilson's book: It's obsessed with war. According to Wilson, once a group has been established, the next step is to go to war with other groups. Also, the more energy a group spends on its form of society, the more violent the group becomes. Wilson sees the violent logic of the group at work in all parts of human society: boardrooms of companies, professional sports, and even in our search for the cure for cancer.
True, Wilson is optimistic about the future of the human race, but it seems he has decentered the selfish individual and replaced it with a warmongering group. This hardly seems like much of an improvement or difference. Much needed today is a theory of sociality that does not predictably draw all of its answers from the old box of "nature, red in tooth and claw."
This article has been updated since its original publication.